by Hector Tobar
This is a vivid and immediate account of the mining disaster that occured in Chile in 2010. A group of 33 men were trapped underground for 69 days (17 of which was spent inching towards death before they were eventually found). Tobar was seemingly an unseeing eye watching and recording the whole ordeal unfold. It’s very evident that Tobar has done his research to recreate a seemingly minute by minute account. The account of the mining diaster as experience by both the miners and those above ground is very intimate. I found myself immersed in this world. Throughout the book Tobar will expertly set a scene and will insert a memory from one or two of those involved recollecting that specific moment.
This story is very much a cultural account laced with a historical vibe that speaks to the very nature of the region and specific landscape. I enjoyed these tidbits immensely. However, the universal aspects of the story also truly resonate.
The story starts with an account of how many of these 33 men reached this shared place on Aug 5th as they descended into the San Jose mine together. Many descend more than 2000 vertical feet below the surface. The unusual noises and explosions as the mountain groans are commonplace as is the sweltering geothermal heat from below causing parts of the mine to exceed 100 degrees at times.
The miners are trapped when suddenly a massive part of the mountain collapses in the middle cutting off their exit. This event causes a blast wave that resonates throughout the mine causing temporary hearing loss and a dust cloud that would continue for seemingly forever.
The first days stuck underground with no contact to the outside world are truly unbelievable. This isolation from all else would last an incredible 17 days. It’s an interesting case study of social dynamics. The leader of the mining crew steps down to be an equal among his men, but to some this is perceived as weakness. Some men give up hope while others stay calm and wait. Eventually it becomes fear and a fight for survival with rations that were suppose to last for only 2 days. Some feel a welling up of insanity. Eventually there are sounds of constant borborygmus, the body rumbling in face of extreme hunger. Dreams become vivid and lucid as the men’s brains feed upon their muscles. Stuck in darkness for 2 weeks their skin turns gray like mushrooms
Outside the mine there is a whole other story. First, wives and girlfriends and family from all over pour to the mine. They stand vigil and eventually form a makeshift tent town as they wait for their miners to be rescued. A few accounts are heartbreaking. How do you protect the children and deal with such uncertainty? How do you hold out for so long? These families experience odd paranormal circumstances, build shrines, and find ways to cope to a situation they never expected to face. Some families even give up. In these accounts we get glimpses into the inner lives of these men. We learn how they got to this station in life, their background and personalities. In ways the sheer number of people in this book seems overwhelming. It’s a monumental task to keep all the names straight. There are 33 miners, their families, and then a whole cast of characters associated with the much publicized rescue effort.
The extremely bureaucratic rescue efforts and media frenzy are also touched upon. There is an early inability to coordinate rescue efforts. Experts and technicians pour in from around the world to perform an engineering task never conceived of before. Celebrities and politicians become involved in various ways and the entire nation watches. Finally, when a drill breaks through to the men, a whole other group of experts are called upon. They carefully re-feed starving men and deal with the many physical ailments. However, weeks and months continue with them trapped and feeling hopeless.
The last part of this story is one about dealing with infamy. Money pours in from around the world. The men meet their president, are offered trips to Disneyland, Israel, Spain etc. They become instant celebrities despite remaining stuck below ground. Their families have to deal with this as well. After they are rescued, this entire experience takes a massive psychological toll. It’s all a psychological terror on minds that have endured and are enduring something beyond certain human capacities. Once rescued they soon learn the money won’t last they need to return to society. Their experience has a big effect on their relationships. Many slowly get better, but also are never the same.
- Imagine the fear of being forgotten and of never experiencing the world you once knew. The only world you know is one above ground. That world seems to be in the past. There’s an uncertainty of whether it will every be a part of any future.
- The one difficulty with this book is that there are so many personalities to follow. If you were engrossed in the story like I was it made it more manageable. For those that take a while to read something I warn against starting this book as you’d soon forget who was who.
- It’s really interesting how you re-feed a man who starved and lost 35-40 lbs. You worry about refeeding syndrome and ways to avoid further muscle breakdown and kidney failure. There are things like latent virus reactivation and Vitamin D deficiency.
- “You see the capacity of humans to be sensitive in critical moments, how a kind of love is born, a bond [cariño], a brotherhood within a moment of danger”.
- “In Latin America, as elsewhere, the media builds up heroes and then takes delight in destroying them, especially when they choose not to cooperate in the machinery of celebrity”
- I wonder if telling their story was cathartic for these men
Rating: 4.5/5. Personally, I was truly absorbed and engaged.